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Gus Grissom taught NASA a hard lesson: “You can hurt yourself in the ocean” (2016) (arstechnica.com)
110 points by ColinWright 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments





There's recent thought (as in: published today) that static electricity, triggered by the helicopter recovery process, was responsible for activating the hatch:

https://astronomy.com/news/2021/07/did-static-electricity-bl...


A similar phenomenon was implicated in triggering the Hindenburg explosion on a recent PBS documentary.

That's a compelling explanation, thanks. Quite detailed.

>> More than half a century later, Grissom’s name has faded from memory... Grissom deserves recognition not as an unlucky footnote but as a genuine hero.

He was also very personally involved in the design for Project Gemini, which certainly had its flaws but is underappreciated IMO. It ends up being seen as simply a stepping stone toward Apollo, but it had actually had a bunch of very interesting design goals of it's own: very precise and controllable landings (including, in earlier plans, a fold-out glider with the pilot's windows facing forward for landing), the beginnings of space stations, much faster turn-around time and more modular design than Mercury, etc.


> If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

--- Gus Grissom

I always find this quote relevant in any thread about Grissom's accomplishments because he was involved in this incident 6-7 years prior to saying it. He honestly believed that the risks were worthwhile, and he wasn't afraid to be the guinea pig to stand by that belief.


I'm old enough to remember most of the early space program. Our small TV gave us a window to the world colored in black and white with shades of grey.

It was so exciting as a kid to watch these rocket launches, ocean recoveries, and television updates that used crude models of the activities to give viewers an idea of how things were supposed to be working.

I remember when Apollo 1 burned up and have never forgotten Grissom, Chaffee, and White. When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon I was glued to the TV.

Space is hard though to a casual observer it may look easy. Success does that to your perception.

Thanks for this article as I didn't know some of the details behind Grissom's contributions to our efforts.


It's always funny to me when people talk about Gus Grissom being an obscure figure. I'll always remember the name because my family would take me to the Grissom Air Force Base in Indiana to see air shows almost yearly when I was a child.


Eric Berger is quite prolific. I wonder how he got started.

Why did NASA prefer landing in sea rather than over landmasses like Soviets did? I think there could be factors that makes landing on dry land safer than on water.

Earths surface is 70% water so if there's an incident then there's a 70% chance you'll be landing in water.

Its possible to build a land lander that would not survive an ocean landing. So if for safety reasons you have to modify the design for water landing, may as well just make a water lander.

(edited to add, speed at splashdown for Apollo capsules was about 15 MPH, so accidentally crashing an Apollo into a flat cornfield would feel about like falling off a bicycle... there would be some damage but its rather unlikely to kill the astronauts, so most water landers can safely-ish land on land with an extremely high odds of survival)

Also helps that with the implosion of the English Empire the USA ruled the seas. Yes we had/have air force bases everywhere also, but there's just more surface area controlled.

If the Soviets had tried ocean recovery it would have been extremely awkward. Very handwavy the Soviets had an enormous number of low quality attack subs and extremely limited surface ships, whereas the USA had/has a huge dominating surface fleet. For better or worse the USA has enormous experience fishing aerospace vehicles out of the water, the USSR simply could not do ocean recovery like we did.


A few of the pros:

* It's a big, flat surface (relative to uneven dry land)

* Safe to land a heavier craft with only parachutes (no retro-rockets required to soften landing)

* There's a lot of ocean all around the US, so lots of possible landing zones

* Large margin for error that still has a safe touchdown


Well, the splashdown was only a temporary stage of NASA's space flight history. They switched to land landings with the Shuttle. Only a couple dozen Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions splashed down, compared to a hundred-plus Shuttle missions on land.

More equipment is involved in a land landing. That's more that can fail. you also have to consider where they're going to have an abort landing.

The Soviet's launch locations weren't exactly surrounded by oceans. I'm sure landing in the Caspian Sea was undesirable to them for other reasons.


The Soviet system injured a number of people quite seriously. It gave Sigmund Jahn a permanent spinal injury in 1978, and in 1969 it broke Boris Voylnov's teeth. Water landings weren't without incident, but I don't think there were ever any injuries as severe as those.

It would be a more interesting article if it delved into the question of whether his claim can be believed. For example, did they ever verify a fault with the mechanism such that the hatch could blow without pressing the plunger?

It's a shame that the most prolific public view of Grissom is how he was portrayed in "The Right Stuff". His exasperation trying to describe it as a "glitch, a technical malfunction" in front of the unbelieving review board.

Apparently, they did, indeed, later learn that the bolts "just blew". And, at least in part, because of that, the door on Apollo 1 did NOT have explosive bolts. If the bolts had worked properly on Mercury, then the bolts may have been in place on Apollo 1, and the crew and Gus Grissom may well still be alive today because of them.

As the engineer said in "From the Earth to the Moon", where this was dramatized, "I've never been a fan of irony."


> Apparently, they did, indeed, later learn that the bolts "just blew".

When the capsule was recovered in 1999, they found no burn marks on the remains of the bolts, suggesting, according to some, that "perhaps the explosive cord never detonated". I don't know, but it is interesting.

1: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-dec-12-mn-43115...


Most interesting. Thank you.

It's worse than that. Because of that incident with his module, he was shifted in the astronaut rotation. If I understand that history properly, without the roster change, he would not have been on the Apollo 1 test crew at all, bolts or no bolts.

Poor guy could not catch a break from NASA.

(Also Fred Ward has not gotten anywhere near enough screen time)


I've never even heard of the guy. I'm not criticizing him. I'm just criticizing the article. It raised a fascinating question and then gave 0 info about it. Just a short quote by the guy in question to close the article. I was listening to it on my phone and I thought the rest of the article had been skipped somehow when it ended there.



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